Yunus Musah has made a strong start to his first season in senior football, so much so that the senior US national team have called him up to their squad. Justin Sousa looks at what makes the 17-year-old tick, and assesses why he could be a big asset for the US in future.
Date of birth: November 29, 2002
Position: Wide midfielder / box-to-box midfielder
Yunus Musah is also eligible to represent Ghana, Italy and England; he has previously played over 30 times at various youth levels for England
AMERICA'S NEXT GENERATION
An interesting commonality has weaved its way into the DNA of the rising generation of young American footballers playing both in Europe and domestically in Major League Soccer.
Perhaps it has to do with the changing landscape of individual player tactics and pressing schemes, but there is a hard-nosed, relentless attitude within each of these young men.
Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie embody these qualities perfectly, and players like Brenden Aaronson and even Christian Pulisic show similar qualities further up the field.
In Yunus Musah, the United States may have uncovered yet another hard-working, technically gifted, intelligent midfielder within their repertoire of multi-national players from around the world.
Having grown up in Italy and later London to Ghanaian parents, Musah’s only connection to the United States was that he was born there, in New York City, in 2002.
It was in Spain, though, where the 17-year-old has broken through at the professional level, starting six of his first seven appearances in La Liga this season. Valencia’s financial crisis has seen them turn to their younger players to take up more starting responsibility in the absence of new signings, and Musah has been one of the beneficiaries of this drastic change.
His breakthrough at Valencia initially revolved around the narrative of a young English player finding his feet in La Liga, but Musah has also been on the mind of USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter and his coaching staff.
Through assistant coach Nico Estevez’s connections with Valencia, the USMNT were made aware of Musah’s ties to the United States and began keeping tabs on the teenager’s progress.
Now, despite playing for and captaining England at various youth levels, Musah has accepted his first senior call-up to the USMNT for this month’s friendlies against Wales and Panama, with an opportunity to impress Berhalter and his staff.
STYLE OF PLAY
Great first touch, especailly when moving at speed
Finds pockets of space in the channels
Technical & tactical versatility
Limited effectiveness as a dribbler in smaller spaces
Playing with his back to goal
At 17 years old, Musah’s long-term position at the senior level is not set in stone given how fluid positions have become in modern football tactics. At Valencia, he broke into the first team on the right side of their midfield as a more conservative winger in their 4-4-2 formation.
However, he rose through the youth ranks playing as a box-to-box midfielder and Berhalter admitted he sees the youngster as more of a central midfielder regarding this month’s national team camp.
Musah’s robust physical attributes and care for the ball in possession have enabled him to make a relatively smooth transition to the new position.
While he is not the type of player willing to take opponents on in one-on-one situations, he can exploit spaces in behind the full-back with his explosiveness and ability to receive a ball in motion.
In a side where much of Musah’s service comes from clearances or long balls down the right flank, he has only gotten better at being able to control difficult passes without losing his forward momentum.
Running into the middle of the field, Musah redirects the ball forward and changes his stride into a run directly towards goal. This keeps the last defender indecisive about pressing Musah or cutting off the pass. He chooses neither, and Musah scores on the counter.
His upbringing in the center of the field has clearly developed the crisp touches he executes on the wing as well. As per StatsBomb data available on FBRef, Musah only averages about 2.4 dribbles per 90 but has completed 42.9% of his attempted dribbles this season.
His efficiency in these occasional one-on-one battles is derivative of his soft touches and the way he manipulates the ball around a defender’s challenge to burst past them with speed.
The caveat in Musah’s ability to turn defenders in this manner on the flank is that those moments have usually come when there is enough space for him to turn and face the defender.
When defenders press against his back, Musah struggles to turn or pass the ball off to a team-mate in one fluid motion. Playing on the right wing restricts the ways he can exploit an opponent’s defensive frailties with his movement whereas a central position provides him the space to pass or dribble out of trouble.
Even if he receives the ball with his back to goal in the middle of the field, he has the freedom to take his first touch in either direction and beat the defender pressing him with his burst of speed or by passing the ball along to an open player.
Musah receives the ball with his back to goal and has no pressure coming from directly behind him. He turns comfortably, muscles off the oncoming defender and releases the ball to Thierry Correia on the wing.
Again, Musah has space to turn and beats his defender with a quick touch around the challenge. The following inward pass is too casual and falls to an Elche player.
Another facet of Musah’s game that would make him better suited for this box-to-box role is his level of comfort to play in advanced positions in the half-spaces.
Valencia’s full backs like to push forward and join the attack, and that has allowed Musah to shift inward to play in these more familiar half-spaces.
When he does so, he looks and plays with more confidence and conviction whether it be the way he distributes the ball or pulls defenders out of positions with his own movement.
Much of his movement in the wide channels for Valencia involves him simply trying to dribble or pass the ball inward, nullifying the verticality he can provide.
On the other side of the ball, Musah dominated the midfield battles within these half-spaces throughout his youth career. Berhalter said he sees Musah filling in for McKennie in the box-to-box midfield role for the USMNT, and there are similarities between each player’s disruptive nature in central midfield.
Musah’s ability to contribute more consistently and efficiently to his side’s progression up the field after winning the ball is arguably already better than what McKennie is currently capable of providing.
The inconsistency in McKennie’s attempts to be a more creative midfielder can often lead to unnecessary turnovers in midfield.
Musah has not shown the vision or foresight McKennie has to spot those final balls, but the simplicity his pass-and-move style of play favors the job Berhalter may want him to do in midfield.
He is comfortable just playing the part in his side’s build-up play and creating space for his team-mates to take up better offensive positions with his movement both on and off the ball.
Musah receives and releases the ball confidently and quickly, shifting a defender out of the back line to open space for a run in behind. Correia ultimately chooses to cross the ball, but this play is tied together by Musah’s ability to connect his team within the half-space.
He tracks back to dispossess his opponent. By drawing the defender towards him with his movement forward, he opens a small gap to get the next pass off to his teammate.
Whether Musah makes his senior debut for the U.S. this month remains to be seen and, even if he does, neither friendly would cap-tie him to the USMNT.
He is highly regarded within the England set-up and is obviously making a name for himself at one of Spain’s biggest clubs, but Musah’s national allegiance from a footballing perspective will ultimately be decided by the opportunities provided to him.
While England have a surplus of talented youngsters making a name for themselves around Europe and within the Premier League, perhaps the saturation of centre-midfielders may push Musah to seriously consider committing to the USMNT.